Verboten! Verboten! Pics Nicht! Pics Nicht!

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As a college student in the early ’70s I made a visit to East Berlin, where I got an interesting lesson in how far a paranoid regime would go to control the circulation of images. It was forbidden to take pictures of all kinds of things there, including taxi cabs, supposedly because they could be used as military vehicles in the event of war, though the idea of a rickety Trabant, East Germany’s flimsy mass market car, being pressed into service as a tank is pretty funny. Consumer goods were also more top secret than rocket launching pads. When I attempted a shot of a washing machine in a department store, a panicky sales clerk shooed me away.

In the U.S. we have our own photo taboos. Because of fears about terrorism you need a permit now to use a camera in the New York City subway, though I shot a cellphone pic for some tourists there over the summer and have yet to be hauled off to Guantanamo. But in our property-minded market economy the real sore spot concerns copyright. That came to mind this morning when I was reading some angry internet chatter about the new Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, a wonderful place that I wrote about in my last post. One of the works on display there is Typewriter Eraser, Scale X by Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen, another of their enlargements of everyday objects. (Or objects that used to be everyday. Remember typewriter erasers?) What had bloggers upset was the plaque accompanying the piece. In a perfect example of institutional tone deafness, it includes a statement by Oldenburg: “The idea of endless public dialogue…visual dialogue…is very important to us.” Which is followed by the words: “Sorry, photography of this sculpture is prohibited.” So much for visual dialogue.

Here’s the sculpture, in a top secret image that I’ve appropriated, like a good post-modernist, from the blogsite of thestranger.com, one of the places where I read about the ban.

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Most sculpture parks have policies restricting commercial photography for the purpose, say, of producing calendars or postcards. But a ban on photographs of any kind seemed over the top, to say nothing of impossible to enforce. (Would there be guards preventing people from even turning their cameras in the eraser’s direction? Would guerilla photographers attempt drive-by shootings from Elliott Avenue?) Two years ago there was a brief uproar when security guards at Millennium Park in Chicago attempted for a while to stop people from taking pictures of Anish Kapoor’s very popular reflective steel sculptureCloud Gate — a/k/a “the Bean”. Park officials say it was all just a misunderstanding, that only commercial photographers are required to get permission to shoot the piece, and that park guards had overinterpreted the policy.

So I put in a call to the Seattle Art Museum, which built and supervises the Olympic Sculpture Park. They were already aware of the fracas. Their press office says the language on the plaque is mistaken and will be changed. As a condition for lending the piece, Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire who owns it, had asked the museum to disallow commercial photography. But due to miscommunications when the plaque was being prepared much broader language found its way on to the sign. The museum promises that a new one will be in place in a few weeks with the offending language removed. So everybody can relax. If you want to show your grandchildren what a typewriter eraser used to look like, you won’t have to resort to a telephoto lens to shoot the thing.

Now what I’d still like to know is this: does Allen own a giant typewriter eraser because it gives him pleasure to think about equipment that Microsoft helped to make obsolete?

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